In late January, I sat in the Booth Theatre and watched one of the final performances of American Son, the Broadway play starring Kerry Washington. It was one of the most powerful nights I had experienced all year, a raging storm of racial animosity and complicated family dynamics jam-packed into a searing 90 minutes. By its end, I was emotionally exhausted and devastated, and yet I almost immediately searched for tickets for the final performance that coming Sunday. I failed in my quest, but Netflix came to the rescue by announcing it would be adapting American Son for the screen, with the original cast. I was elated to be able to experience such a rollercoaster again, and curious to see how they would recreate that turbulent magic on-screen.
As the Broadway version does, Netflix’s American Son finds Kendra Ellis-Connor (Kerry Washington) in the early morning hours in a police station, anxiously awaiting information about her son Jamal, who has been missing for hours. Her only source is Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), a night shift police officer who tries and fails to placate her, with his casual use of racist stereotypes and condescension towards her tangible fears. The tension is ratcheted up further upon the arrival of Scott (Steven Pasquale), an FBI officer who Paul is surprised to learn is Kendra’s husband and Jamal’s father. There’s no love lost between the spouses; they are separated and spend most of their time together blaming each other for Jamal’s current predicament, while mining through eighteen years of messy, complicated, and contradictory racial politics. Coupled with the frustratingly vague details about Jamal’s “incident”, the police station is a hotbed of emotional and physical turmoil.
That turmoil is the driving force behind American Son’s power on the stage, and director-producer Kenny Leon desperately tries to preserve it for the screen. Unfortunately, his idea of preservation means carbon-copying the theater experience. Everything is the same: the police station set, the costumes, the wildly intense performances, and the script, which follows the original play practically line-by-line. American Son’s biggest flaw lies within Christopher Demos-Brown’s script, and his failure to truly adapt it for this new medium. In the context of theater, where the intimacy between stage and audience lends itself well to pontificating charged emotions, his words extolling the fears and frustrations of black parents raising children are felt deeply.
On the screen, specificity and nuance are twin kings, and even though Kendra can paint a vivid picture of Jamal and the life they shared, the emotions don’t feel grounded in the characters conveying them. At the film’s lowest points, the characters devolve into bouts of high-octane speechifying about racial micro-aggressions, white privilege and cop violence that may be powerful on paper, but don’t fully resonate. The film succeeds when it deals directly with specific character moments. Kendra and Scott’s fight about their separation, and how Jamal manifests his anger in the rejection of his half-white identity, conveys more about their family and the film’s core themes than anything else up until that point.
A little imagination, and a willingness to deviate from the source material, might’ve made the difference in American Son’s screen adaptation. Apart from the lack of genuinely compelling character moments, the script can be awkward and downright clunky at times. Some lines could’ve been cut completely (the fewer uses of “Kenny”, Scott’s nickname for Kendra, the better), and replaced with new scenes that expanded the scope of the Connor family’s tenuous connections. There are some attempts, but those new scenes are still tied to the original script as opposed to existing in their own right. It would’ve been interesting to see the dissolution of Kendra and Scott’s marriage, or how on Earth they managed to fall in love despite their diametrically opposed views on Blackness.
This is where American Son on film could’ve differentiated itself; that it doesn’t is a huge missed opportunity. Leon is similarly conservative in his direction, which amounts to capturing the same stage from multiple angles and vantage points, as opposed to experimenting with how this unbearably tense scene may look and feel different to its four characters, or anything else. Again, the script and actors must do the heavy lifting. Their efforts don’t fully pay off until way past the halfway mark, when all of the animosity and confusion finally boils over in its shocking, devastating final act.
Whatever works in American Son’s leap to the screen is due to the cast. Kerry Washington is as riveting as she was in the performance I attended, channeling Kendra’s fears, anxieties and fury through every movement and modulation of her voice. Even though the performance still feels tailored specifically for the stage, she hasn’t forgotten the power of the camera, and how great she is at conveying complicated emotions through her face. She is especially exceptional here, as is her love interest Steven Pasquale. The camera gives Pasquale more opportunity to convey more of Scott’s turmoil over the state of his family, and he runs with it, quite possibly exceeding his already excellent stage performance. Together, Washington and Pasquale have a lived-in, particularly heartbreaking chemistry that was begging to be explored further (it was easy to imagine him playing a love interest on Scandal).
It’s a shame that American Son struggles so much in its duty to its stage origins, because the story is terribly vital. It’s a reality for millions of parents in this country, wondering whether or not a moment of adolescence can mutate into life-ending horror, because of their skin color. It’s a story that should be told on both stage and screen, but that doesn’t mean they should be told the same way.
Even if American Son was adapted this way on purpose, to expand the theater experience to a wider audience, too much is lost in translation. What’s frustrating is that a traditional adaptation steeped in filmic traditions could’ve been just as powerful, if not more so, than its Broadway counterpart. For me, the gutpunch I felt watching this version stems from my memories of the Broadway performance. What’s even sadder is, for those seeing American Son for the first time, they may feel nothing at all.